The Geraldo Story

In the last blog posting, Gary Green has written a compelling defense of what I would call orthodox Christian faith, for which I am very grateful. While I may qualify as one of those secularists Gary writes about (actually more of a Universalist masquerading as an Episcopalian), I understand his arguments and actually am not as far removed from orthodoxy as you might think.

What really resonated with me was the Geraldo story. If he even had a funeral, it is doubtful that anyone eulogized Geraldo. He did not live a long and productive life, spending a large part of his life in prison and dying in his early 50s. His conversion to Christianity gave him purpose and hope—not only for getting by from day to day but for something much greater: hope that his life on Earth was not futile or his suffering in vain, but that in the mystery of death he would  pass to the Other Side.

One of the troubling questions I have asked myself from time to time is this: if there is no afterlife, if there is no union with the Divine, then what are we to make of the pain and suffering so many people go through during their short lives? The marathon metaphor that I used in “Passings” might make some sense for people who like me were dealt a good hand, but what about those who were dealt the bad hands–people with severe mental or physical illnesses, those who live in inescapable poverty, who have been sexually abused, who are victims of racism or violence, who are not able to establish loving relationships, who tragically lost loved ones, who suffer from addiction or are homeless, or who are just not able to find their way in life for any number of reasons. The list could go on. Are their lives in vain?

I also like to use the metaphor that the value of our lives is determined by how we play the hand we have been dealt. But what about those people who do play their hand as well as they can but suffer nonetheless? Is there no justice?

This is where secular humanism pretty much hits a dead end: Ok, so life sucks. Get over it.

This is where religion, especially Christianity, offers hope: Yes, life may suck, but this is not all. There is more. In the big picture, it will be ok.

But, some might ask, that is what you might hope and believe, but are you just deceiving yourself? Is this just wishful thinking?

These are the questions we humans find ourselves asking as we try to make sense out of our experience and the world around us. As we try to find meaning and purpose, and belief that in the end it all makes sense. As Gary suggests in his posting, there are no hard and fast answers: the pathway leading us through despair is called faith.

The fact that human pain and suffering are real for many people came home to me during that eventful summer of 1965 when I was a chaplain at Boston City Hospital. Almost all the people I visited and befriended were poor, and many were in desperate shape. One recent immigrant from Puerto Rico was so despondent that he had jumped off a bridge to commit suicide only to fall on two elderly pedestrians killing them both. He only broke a leg, and was handcuffed to his bed, awaiting trial for manslaughter. A 23-year-old woman died on my watch from cancer. Her working class family asked me to preside at her funeral, which happened in their small living room in a dilapidated row house in South Boston. Fewer than a dozen people were present. Several others in the hospital had terminal illnesses and as far as I could tell had no visitors except for me.

Embry and I had not married yet, and she was working with kids at an inner city church in Boston, when one evening we went to see “The Pawnbroker,” a film starring Rod Steiger about a calloused and hardened, white, pawnbroker in Harlem, who was taking advantage of poor, struggling African Americans. At first my response was to hate this guy, who was cruel and uncaring; but as the film progressed, through flashbacks it became apparent that he had been a Holocaust victim. His life was only marginally better than the lives of his Harlem customers. I believe there was some sort of redemption at the end, but it did not register with me. As I got behind the wheel of the car, I completely fell apart, sobbing for what must have been at least ten minutes. Embry must have thought I was completely unstable, and she would have not been that far off. It was the closest I have ever come to a nervous breakdown. I could not deal with the suffering that I was seeing all around me at Boston City Hospital, triggered by the suffering portrayed in that extraordinary film. Eventually I got over it and realized I had to move on. I had no choice but to accept that this is just the way the world is.   

The world, of course, is a lot more—a mixture of pain and hope, despair and joy– and at age 76 as I look back on my own life, I feel that I have been truly blessed. I am deeply grateful.

But still. For many this is not the case. There are no guaranteed happy endings, no guaranteed justice or fairness—at least not in the life we live on this planet. And that is why Gary’s telling of the story of Geraldo is compelling and hopeful.





From Old Friend, Gary Green: An Answer To Joe

Gary Green was my roommate at Union Seminary in the fall of 1965, just before my marriage to Embry. After graduating from Union, he received a PhD from Yale in religious studies and joined the faculty at Connecticut College where he taught in the religion department until his retirement a few years ago. Since retiring he has spent a great deal of time and energy in the Prison Movement, working with inmates. He is a noted scholar and theologian and without question the smartest guy I knew at Union or practically anywhere else for that matter. We have stayed in touch over the years since he and his wife, Pricilla, regularly visit DC to see their two adult children and grandchildren, who live in the Baltimore/ Washington region.

Dear Joe,

I want to thank you,  first of all for taking the time and effort to share your honest and heartfelt response to your recent confrontation with our common mortality. In doing so you have also presented me with a difficult challenge, for a testimony like yours is not to be ignored or taken lightly. Like you, I’m slogging through my seventies, living through the funerals of friends and facing the inevitability of death with ever-increasing urgency. Since I’m also a committed Christian and a theologian by training and vocation, your letter challenges me to respond, even though it’s a task that part of me would like to avoid. So lest I be seen, by myself and others, as a hypocrite or a coward, I will heed the apostle’s advice to be “always prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you” (1 Pet. 3:15).

If the resurrection of the dead were a minor issue for followers of Jesus—one of the adiaphora, those matters that the Protestant Reformers regarded as optional but not essential to faith—things would be different. But clearly it is not. It’s right there in the creeds we recite and in virtually every writing of the New Testament; but most important, it confronts us repeatedly and centrally in the life and teachings of Jesus himself. (There are some who would like to strip this teaching from Jesus while continuing to honor him as a great spiritual teacher, but this move simply turns Jesus into someone else with the same name.)

As you say quite rightly, death is a mystery. But what kind of mystery? In a secular culture like the one we live in, mystery is just a word for something we don’t understand and probably never will.

For Christian believers, however, life beyond death is a mystery, but one we affirm nevertheless. That affirmation is called faith, and it differs radically from the kind of worldly matters that we can simply know and take to be factually true. If we approach the question of eternal life as though it were a “normal” question, something we can answer by careful reasoning or common sense, of course it sounds implausible. So for secularists, the matter is settled: we can’t know for sure, but we suspect that it’s very unlikely that anything “comes next.” Most of the people I know who aren’t practicing Christians—and some who are—are de facto secularists; that is, they don’t really think much about ultimate questions (because it seems a futile effort) but they live and think as though there were no reality beyond the world of immediate experience, the world we understand through the empirical sciences or not at all. Those of us in our seventies grew up in a quite different culture, one in which you could be a Christian more or less by default. A few people still cling to that world, the world of the once-“mainline” churches, which continue to lose members. I am happy that for me that’s no longer a possibility, even though it’s hard to live in a culture (as a pastor friend of mine likes to say) that is “in the process of giving itself permission to persecute Christians.” Kierkegaard, who was one of the first to identify, and reject, modern Christianity-by-default, believed that there are only two possible responses to the message of Jesus: faith or offense. That’s becoming clearer to me every day now.

So what does it mean to affirm by faith the mysteries of God, including the resurrection of the dead and life everlasting? I love your analogy of life to running a marathon—not least because, as you know, I too ran (literal) marathons until my knees gave out. As a student of the Bible, you know that the apostle Paul used the same analogy: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith” (1 Tim. 4:7). But it is also Paul who wrote, “If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied” (1 Cor. 15:19).

The key word here is hope. As I was reading your testimony, some words popped into my head from a prayer that is said at a Christian burial (“while earth is cast upon the coffin”): “In sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life through our Lord Jesus Christ, we commend to Almighty God ourbrother N. . . .” (BCP, p. 501). What a puzzling phrase: “sure and certain hope”! Isn’t hope a term we use when are not certain? The Bible itself tells us that “hope that is seen is not hope” (Rom. 8:24). So how can our hope in the resurrection be “sure and certain”? I believe the explanation is that our hope is grounded in faith—defined as believing the promises of God. So the certainty comes not from ourselves but from God who has given us the promise of resurrection: “Jesus Christ . . . was not Yes and No, but in him it is always Yes. For all the promises of God find their Yes in him” (2 Cor. 1:19). But that means Christians may not treat the certainty of resurrection as though it were some established fact that only they are privy to. Our creed affirms that “we look for the resurrection of the dead.” This is not the language of people who “have all the answers” but of people confessing a sure and certain hope in God’s promise.

For secularists faith can only be the holding of beliefs without sufficient evidence. But the apostle anticipated that reaction as well: “For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men” (1 Cor. 1:22-25). That means that if I confess my faith in the gospel I’d better be prepared for people to see me as a fool.

You begin your testimony with accounts of the recent funerals of two friends, both of whom, you say, lived rich and productive lives. I want to tell you about my own recent experience of the death of a Christian friend. I met Geraldo five years ago at the prison where I serve as a Christian volunteer. He was an inmate and I was his pre-release mentor. He told me at our first meeting that he was the second youngest of seven brothers, two of whom had died in the past year. One of those older brothers had sexually abused him when he was eight years old and never acknowledged the abuse but just wanted to “move on.” This was Geraldo’s fifth incarceration. All were for larceny or burglary, motivated by alcohol and drug addiction. Once he had been shot and survived. Another time, while cornered inside a room, he had almost fired his shotgun through the door but hesitated at the last minute. He was later haunted by the thought that he had almost killed a man. But now he was a Christian, he told me, and was optimistic about not returning to prison again. For the next eight months we met, talked, and prayed together weekly. He was a quiet and gentle man (yes!) who spoke in a soft voice and suffered most in the prison environment from having to live in a dormitory with over a hundred other men, surrounded by constant noise and chaos. But he worked in the prison laundry, where inmates brought him their bags of laundry, and while the washing machines ran, he would counsel some of them and pray with them.

After he was transferred to another correctional facility at the other end of the state, I visited him once, the last time I saw him face to face. But he continued to write to me intermittently, even after his release. He was a gifted artist and drew greeting cards while in prison, from which he earned a bit of money. The photo shows me holding a gift he sent to me that I had framed; it now hangs on the wall of my study. He painted it on a handkerchief, using paints that he made by crushing colored pencils purchased from the prison commissary.

There was a lengthy gap in our correspondence: I learned later that he had served another term in prison. But he got back in touch with me after his release, and we texted periodically and talked a few times on the phone. My last text from him, just last July, was about a worrisome message he had received from his doctor. Then nothing more for several weeks. Earlier this month I received a phone call from his son-in-law, who had found my number in Geraldo’s phone. He told me that Geraldo had died after a brief but severe decline while awaiting a liver transplant. He was fifty-three years old. Had the son-in-law not called, I would never have known what happened to my friend.

Clearly, his was not a long, rich, and full life. If the life of this man is to have meaning, if it is to be redeemed, it will have to come from another source than his life on this earth. So, yes, when I learned of his death, I saw him—through eyes of faith—seated at that heavenly banquet table with the Lord Jesus. And I know, through a sure and certain hope, that all his tears have been washed away (see Rev. 21:4).

So Joe, my old roommate and friend, I can’t think of anything more to tell you. Like death and eternal life, our faith, too, is a mystery. I don’t know anyone who acquired it by study or reasoning or argument, because it can only come as a gift—as the free gift of God’s grace. I hope you will not take it amiss when I say that I look forward to joining you at that banquet table. If I get there first, I’ll save you a place, and I hope you will do the same for me.

Yours in faith, hope, and love, Gary


Two funerals this weekend of old and dear friends, word yesterday of a college fraternity brother’s death, learning a few weeks ago about the tragic death of a good friend’s wife, the stunning, televised, funeral of John McCain, and several close friends with terminal illnesses. When you are in your mid 70s, it is hard to miss the writing on the wall: we aren’t going to live forever.

So what are we to make of this? Is death the moment of our passing into eternal life when we will be reunited with our loved ones who have died before and the moment we will be with God forever? Do you believe this? I don’t, and neither did the friend of mine whose funeral was this weekend. Yet that is what one of the eulogists said about him—that my friend knew that when he died my friend was certain he would go straight to heaven, be reunited with his loved ones, and sit next to Jesus.  Even though he was a loyal and regular churchgoer, I know he didn’t believe this because the two of us had a conversation about it the week before he died. He was in hospice, very weak, and knew the end was near.

“You know, Joe,” he said, “I am a deeply spiritual person and believe in God. I believe that there is a purpose to life and a purpose to the universe. I feel truly blessed and grateful for my life. But do I believe my cremated ashes will be magically reassembled and suddenly I will find myself at a banquet table seated next to Jesus Christ? Please! Death remains a mystery. And what happens next? Who knows? I know some Christians who say, probably nothing. When we die, it is over. And I say that is ok to believe that. What happens next is not what is really important. What is really important is how we live our life on Earth. That is what counts.”

The funeral service for him was  packed. By his standard he scored high.  He lived a rich and full life and was loved by many.

The other funeral Embry and I attended was also in an Episcopal Church. This friend was a former neighbor, a distinguished member of the  foreign service, a former ambassador, and a pillar of his church. His memorial service was also standing room only and recognition of a long and productive life, lived to the fullest. The liturgy was mostly from the Gospel of John with its assurance of  eternal life—but only for those who have committed themselves to Christ and are true believers. My neighbor lived and worked all over the world and knew people of many faiths. He was progressive politically and theologically. I could not help wondering what he would have thought of these passages.

As some of you may know, I studied to become an Episcopal priest and have a  Masters of Divinity degree. I was not ordained into the priesthood but have been an active churchman almost all of my adult life, serving in virtually every lay capacity that you can. Embry has done the same and currently sings in the choir and serves on the vestry at our neighborhood Episcopal Church. We have paid our dues. But does this mean that we have all the answers or that we have certainty that we are going to live in eternity after we die? And how important is having the assurance of eternal life in making sense out of our own, all-too-short, lives on this small, blue planet in a vast universe of billions and billions of galaxies, each with its billions and billions of stars, many with their own planets?

The short answer, in my view, is not very. My friend was right. While no one knows for certain what happens after we die, what we all know is that we do die and have a very short period of time to make the most out of the life we have been given.

I have struggled with the mystery of death and what happens next for a long time. During my years in seminary I spent one summer in Boston as a chaplain at Boston City Hospital where I also participated in a program called “clinical training.” Part  of this involved daily, group therapy sessions led by a trained counselor designed to help seminarians better understand themselves and do better relating to and providing pastoral care to their flock. Toward the end of the program we all had to write an essay about death. I struggled with this and then poured out my heart on paper, trying to make some sense of what death means. When I got the paper back, I received a D with the inscription by one of the program leaders that I would have gotten an F but for the fact that it would have meant that I would have failed the entire clinical training program and also that my essay was well written and thoughtful. My mistake: no mention of the guarantee of an eternal afterlife for Christians and no mention of being united with Jesus Christ forever.

When I asked him about it later, he replied earnestly, “Joe, this is the most fundamental part of the Christian faith. If you are not a believer in going to heaven where you will be with God and Jesus, many in the church believe you are going to hell. How could you leave something like this out?”

Short answer: because I do not believe it. I did not believe it then, and I do not believe it now. So after all some 55 years have passed, I am no closer today than I was then to “knowing the truth.”

 The main role of religion in the human drama, I believe, is giving us some guideposts and affirming universal values, which are remarkably similar across most major religions: values like love, fairness, generosity, justice, honesty, kindness, integrity, selflessness, helping others, humility, and reverence for the Divine.

Now you know why I was deemed unfit for the Episcopal priesthood.

So in my mid 70s when this weekend I attended funerals of two good friends, one about five years younger and the other five years older, I couldn’t help acknowledging that the end of the road is getting closer for my generation and for me. That is just the way it is for us humans, in fact, for all living things. And the odd thing is that the idea of approaching the end of the road scared me a lot more as a young man than it does now. But I suppose this is natural. As a young person you have a whole life in front of you. The fear is that you will not get your chance. As an old man, you have had your chance. You have given life your best shot.

I was a runner for most of my adult life until my knees gave out, and think that running a marathon is a good metaphor for our journey through life. Running a marathon—or any long race—is really, really hard. You struggle to keep going and finally when you stumble across the finish line, you collapse in fatigue and joy. Hey, you did it! You finished the race! No, you didn’t win, but you were never supposed to. You ran at your own pace. And you finished.

And I think that is the way life is. And for that I thank God, who goes by different names in many languages and in many religions. I acknowledge the Divine mystery that we humans can’t explain but which gives meaning to the race we run and in the end, gives us reason to believe that on some deeper level, it all makes sense.











Is This The Beginning of the End?

Sometimes a life means more in the context of history when it ends.  Need I mention one such example that occurred over 2,000 years ago? In no way do I mean to suggest that John McCain was  like Jesus of Nazareth, but there was something about that historic funeral yesterday that seemed to me something more than words can express and possibly a turning point in the nightmare we call Trump. The moment came during his daughter’s emotional speech when she talked about America  “always being great” and was interrupted by a thunderous applause that seemed to last for minutes.  This kind of response to a sermon or eulogy never happens in the Washington National Cathedral.

We were watching on national television a direct, though subtle, verbal assault on a sitting president in a packed cathedral of both Republican and Democrats, the leaders of our nation. What was this all about? What were these flawed leaders trying to tell us by applauding spontaneously—these people from both parties who have on the whole failed our country by not standing up to a wannabe tyrant and dictator and not addressing our nation’s fundamental problems, by pulling us apart rather than bringing us together? Were they trying to tell us that they get it?

Lieberman, George W. and Obama all came next and added their two cents worth reminding the mourners of the traditional American values that John McCain stood for—inclusiveness, country over party, equal opportunity, civil discourse, and fairness. All the speakers pointed out that in the past, most of the time, the big fights in Congress were not over basic American values but rather the best way to achieve them.  Sure, there were big exceptions like slavery and the Civil War, and  the civil rights movement, but still we Americans are for the most part grounded in universal values that most of us accept and aspire to. But certainly not all of us and seemingly  not today.

Trump was asked not to attend the  funeral. He used the free time to tweet nasty comments about Canada, Mueller, Hillary, and Sessions before heading out to his usual Saturday golf game. But Jared and Ivanka were there and so were a handful from his Cabinet. Will they get the message? Were they applauding? Will that moment in Meghan’s eulogy  last in the minds of leaders on both sides of the aisle? Will this mean  that they realize it is now time for things to change?  Did the message from a weeping, 33 year-old, bereaved daughter get through to them? Did they see this, as I did, as a watershed moment?

Shortly after the service when driving out to Mt. Rainier, Maryland, to out daughter’s house, a perfect rainbow  appeared in the distance right in front of our car. All the colors were there, and the arc seemed to reach from one side of the earth all the way to the other. The most amazing thing  about this rainbow was that that it suddenly  appeared with blue sky all around it. What was that all about?

Could this mark the beginning of the end, or perhaps better said, the beginning of a new beginning?

I know. Don’t hold my breath. I won’t, but I can still hope.